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Bob Baffert’s Kentucky Derby dominance faces a serious test

Omaha Beach, left, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, runs alongside Jersey Agenda, center, ridden by joc
Omaha Beach, far left, with jockey Mike Smith, runs in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., on March 16.
(Thomas Metthe / AP)

There’s a reasonable chance that a Hall of Fame trainer will win Saturday’s Kentucky Derby as eight of the 20 horses have one of the sport’s legendary trainers.

Conventional wisdom would say that those who reach that historical pedestal already would have won the most prestigious race the sport has to offer. But three of those five trainers — Steve Asmussen, Richard Mandella and Bill Mott — have never won the Kentucky Derby. Collectively, they have lost the race 33 times.

Still, this could be the year for one of them to upset Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the five-time winner, who has three horses in the race. Mandella, with an entrant for the first time in 15 years, has the likely favorite, Omaha Beach, winner of the Arkansas Derby and a division of the Rebel Stakes.

And there is Mott, who has both Tacitus and Country House. Tacitus won the Wood Memorial and Tampa Bay Derby, and Country House, who hasn’t won a stakes, was third in Arkansas Derby.

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Asmussen, who is winless in 19 tries, has Long Range Toddy, who won a division of the Rebel Stakes and will have Jon Court as the jockey. At 58, Court will be the oldest rider to ever compete in the Kentucky Derby.

If those aren’t enough storylines to make this year’s Derby interesting, here are five more to think about.

Will there be another Triple Crown winner this year?

It’s possible but not likely. Of course, that’s the response you would have every year. Omaha Beach will be the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, but he doesn’t have near the hype that Justify had last year. Still, he’s a pretty good horse, and he hasn’t topped out yet, so there is an unseen upside.

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“I felt more confident with American Pharoah than Justify and more confident with Justify than Omaha Beach for a couple of reasons,” said Jon White, a racing historian who also makes the morning line at Santa Anita. “One is that Bob Baffert,” trainer of American Pharoah and Justify, “has never lost a Preakness with a Kentucky Derby winner.

White added that he thought Omaha Beach trainer Mandella “is one of the greatest trainers of all time. But, he’s going down a road he’s never gone down before.”

It’s also expected there will be more fresh horses than normal at the Preakness. But first Omaha Beach, or whoever, has to win the Derby.

Which is the best Bob Baffert horse?

Baffert has Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster in the Derby. Improbable is probably the weakest of the three, even though he’s been getting used to the dirt at Churchill Downs since he was shipped there after he was unable to run down Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. He was also caught at the wire by Long Range Toddy in the Rebel.

Roadster beat Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby by half a length, but Game Winner was four wide in the turns, and Roadster needed the points to qualify for the Derby. Game Winner did not. So one could surmise that Roadster was fully cranked for the Santa Anita and Game Winner was not.

So, with all that said, maybe Game Winner?

Who’s going to be the ‘wise guy’ horse this year?

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The wise guy horse is a term used for the colt who’s below the radar whom professionals in Las Vegas are keying in on. Last year, it was Keith Desormeaux’s My Boy Jack. He finished fifth. Although the horse can change by race time, this year’s early wise guy horse is By My Standards, trained by Bret Calhoun and ridden by Gabriel Saez.

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By My Standards won his last two races, a maiden race by 4½ lengths at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds and then followed it up at 23-1 in the Louisiana Derby by three-quarters of a length, beating Spinoff, who is in the Kentucky Derby. The colt is likely to have morning-line odds of at least 20-1.

Can a filly win this year’s Kentucky Derby?

Absolutely not because no filly entered the race. But if there’s one that could compete, it would be Santa Anita-based Bellafina. She is likely to be favored in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. After a second in her first race, she won three in a row, including two Grade 1s. She went off in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies as the favorite but ran a disappointing fourth. It was discovered she was, according to trainer Simon Callaghan, “in season,” and it compromised her race. It’s very unusual for race horses to be ovulating so late in the year.

Since the Breeders’ Cup she has been unbeatable in three races, winning the Santa Anita Oaks by a hand-ridden 5¼ lengths. She could be the front-end of a Santa Anita Oaks-Derby double.

Did the situation at Santa Anita affect the Kentucky Derby?

The closure of Santa Anita during the height of Derby prep season could have disrupted things a lot more than it did. The San Felipe, the major West Coast prep before the Santa Anita Derby, was canceled. But, Oaklawn Park stepped up and ran two divisions of the Rebel Stakes, which allowed West Coast shippers to run, including Omaha Beach, Game Winner and Improbable. It also culled a few West Coast horses from the trail.

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